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Macedonia wants to join NATO 2009, EU 2013, says premier By Leon Mangasarian

dpa German Press Agency
Published: Monday October 16, 2006

By Leon Mangasarian, Berlin- Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski said Monday his country wants to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation by 2009 and the European Union by 2013. Gruevski, in an interview with Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa, underlined that a firm EU and NATO membership perspective was vital for ensuring political stability in the entire Balkans region.

"We are very dedicated to continuing the process of EU integration and NATO integration," said Gruevski, a 36-year-old former finance minister and banker whose new centre-right government coalition took power last August.

Macedonia wants to be invited to join NATO at the Alliance's 2008 summit and formally accede either that year or in 2009, said Gruevski who was in Berlin on his first official foreign visit for talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Gruevski called on the EU to next year set a date for starting negotiations to join the 25-nation bloc and said Macedonia should become a full member in "six or seven years."

He admitted Macedonians were "disappointed" over a growing anti- enlargement mood in older EU states amid concern over the Union's "absorption capacity" to deal with new - and poorer - members.

"We are too small a country to be a problem ... we only have two million people," said the Macedonian premier, adding this was less than many European cities, including Berlin with its population of 3.4 million.

Last week European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said it was impossible at present to give Macedonia any timetable for EU membership.

Gruevski underlined that progress in Brussels toward EU membership was vital because it would encourage people in his country to support tough measures needed to revamp the economy and institutions required for admission to the elite club.

"We are fully focused on reforms - especially the economy and the fight against corruption and criminality," vowed the Macedonian leader.

After years of stagnation, Macedonia's economy began posting serious growth in 2003 and last year grew by 3.7 per cent.

Seeking stronger growth, the government is implementing a flat-tax of 12 per cent for both personal income and corporate profits from January 1, 2007 and will reduce both rates to 10 per cent from January 1, 2008, said Gruevski.

But the economy is only one of Macedonia's challenges.

Maintaining stability in the country - which almost lurched into a civil war in 2001 between its ethnic Macedonian majority and Albanian minority comprising a quarter of the population - remains the other overriding government priority, said Gruevski.

He said up to 95 per cent of the 2001 Ohrid Agreement, under which ethnic Albanian extremists laid down their arms in exchange for greater rights, had been accepted.

"But not all of them are implemented. So our task is to implement the rest of the Orhid Agreement and to keep the stability," said Gruevski, adding that getting more Albanians into the public sector remained a key goal.

Turning to the neighbouring mainly Albanian region of Kosovo - ruled by the United Nations since 1999 after Serbian troops were defeated in a NATO-led war - Gruevski insisted his country could live with any final status agreement.

"If the final decision will be independence we are ready to accept this," he said.

Negotiations for Kosovo's final status began early this year and most observers expect the province to win some form of independence from Serbia to which it still formally belongs.

Gruevski cautioned, however, that strict guarantees were needed from the international community to prevent radical Albanians from making any claims against his own country.

Regarding Macedonia's dispute with Greece over its name - Greece insists the country be called the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) - Gruevski said he was optimistic a compromise deal could be reached.

While declaring that giving up his country's constitutional name "is not possible" he said it would be possible to use a different name for all bilateral agreements with Greece.

Athens fears that recognising the name Macedonia could imply territorial claims on a northern Greek region also called Macedonia.

Greek companies are investing heavily in Macedonia despite the name dispute, said Gruevski, with a grin, adding: "I belive that the Greek political class will understand the same thing in the future."

He noted that the United States, Russia, China and over 100 other countries had recognised the constitutional name Macedonia. Members of the EU do not due to Greek insistence.

"If it's possible in the future ... we would like to be recognised under the constitutional name from Germany," said Gruevski, adding that he had "big hopes" for Berlin's EU presidency next year.

© 2006 dpa German Press Agency